The Coming RoboUber, The ISS’s One Ring, and Elon Musk’s BFR | Vol. 3 / No. 43

Image: Volvo/Uber

Uber, Volvo, and the Future of Taxis

By the end of the summer, there should be roughly a hundred self-driving Volvo XC90 SUVs driving around Pittsburgh as part of a $300 million collaboration between the Swedish automaker and Uber, both of whom are working to develop self-driving technology — Volvo to sell to car owners, and Uber to use to replace its human drivers wherever it becomes possible. According to Travis Kalanick, Uber’s CEO, the company has just purchased self-driving truck company Otto, and this effort with Volvo seems to be a way of sharing knowledge between their newly-acquired team and Volvo’s, to their mutual benefit (and, sadly, to the eventual extinction of human Uber driver as a career). But don’t fret, oh Pittsburgh Uber-riders: if you’re worried about the as-yet-unproven technology, each vehicle will be supervised by an engineer in the driver’s seat (ready to take the wheel if need be) and a co-pilot taking notes on the new technology. And if you’re lucky enough to get to be a passenger? Looks like you’ll get your trip for free. For now, anyway. TechCrunch has more on the story.

In related news, the self-driving future is very close at hand indeed. Five years, says Ford.


One (Docking) Ring to Rule Them All

IDA-2 well before launch | Photo: NASA
IDA-2 well before launch | Photo: NASA

On Friday, ISS astronauts Jeff Williams and Kate Rubins performed a six-hour spacewalk to attach the first of two IDAs, or International Docking Adapters, bringing the ISS into line with a new international standard for soft docking developed in 2010. The old system, APAS, was actually developed by the Soviet Union, and NASA went along with it on the shuttle so it would be able to dock with Mir. That design was again used on the ISS, but it because fairly apparent that a new design was needed. I’ll explain. There are basically two ways you can attach a ship to the ISS, docking and berthing. Berthing is what they do with cargo ships: the ship flies up to a stationary position relative to the ISS, the Canadarm reaches out and links it up to the station, and then astronauts fiddle around with connector cables for an hour or so until it’s all on the station’s power grid. Docking is what they do with crew ships: because it has to be much faster to come and go (for safety reasons, if nothing else) docking has to be automatic. To do that, the old system required a hefty shove from the ship, and they started to realize there was a good chance of damage being done to the ISS when the solar panel wings started flapping every time the shuttle docked. Enter the new system, the IDSS (or International Docking System Standard). This is a soft-touch docking standard that everyone’s agreed to, and it’s how future crew ships, like the Boeing Starliner and the SpaceX Crew Dragon (and maybe eventually the Dream Chaser) will dock. What Williams and Rubins were installing Friday was a ring-shaped adapter to update one of the old-standard APAS ports to the new IDSS standard. This would’ve happened sooner, but the first one was on the ill-fated CRS-7 mission. The successful installation means that the first (uncrewed) commercial crew test missions can proceed as planned, with the unoccupied Crew Dragon test scheduled for May of next year, and the unoccupied Starliner test scheduled for the following December. You can read exhaustively about the development of the different docking standards (as I did) over at


We’re Going To Need A Bigger Rocket

How big? That's a Saturn V on the left | Image: reddit user stratohornet (note: the BFR is almost certainly not going to be that tall)
How big? That’s a Saturn V on the left | Image: reddit user stratohornet (note: the BFR is almost certainly not going to be that tall)

The news broke this week that SpaceX has started testing its next-generation rocket engine. The Raptor engine is the successor to the Merlin engines that currently power the Falcon 9 (and soon the Falcon Heavy), and will be used to power the “BFR” a reusable rocket system meant to get the Mars Colonial Transporter series up and over to the red planet. The initial designs for the MCR (which is all we have to work on until Musk details the plans next month at the IAC at the end of September) call for the thing to be, simply put, huge. Bigger than the Saturn V huge. Able to carry a hundred people at a time to Mars huge. And it’ll need to be huge — and reusable — seeing as in his initial calculations he suggests for each human trip you’ll need ten cargo trips. In an interview published in Aeon, well — here’s what he said:

‘Excluding organic growth, if you could take 100 people at a time, you would need 10,000 trips to get to a million people,’ he said. ‘But you would also need a lot of cargo to support those people. In fact, your cargo to person ratio is going to be quite high. It would probably be 10 cargo trips for every human trip, so more like 100,000 trips. And we’re talking 100,000 trips of a giant spaceship.’

The scale of Elon Musk’s ambition knows, as far as I can tell, no bounds whatsoever.



Just in case you haven’t been reading this site with the mad fervour of one possessed, here’s what we got up to this week, in handy point-form:

If you missed any of them, take a minute to check them out!


Best of the Rest

And of course, because there’s no way we can cover everything without some kind of magical sponsorship deal that lets me quit my day job, here’s your weekly linkspam of all the things we didn’t cover:

And just because “2016 is a dumpster fire” is this year’s biggest meme, here’s John Green from Mental Floss (and elsewhere) explaining that it’s really not all that bad.

Have a great week, everybody.


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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.